SO478 - week 8

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These are my notes from November 14 for SO478 at the London School of Economics for the 2017-2018 school year. I'm taking this module as part of the one-year Inequalities and Social Science MSc program.

The usual disclaimer: all notes are my personal impressions and do not necessarily reflect the view of the lecturer. Feel free to email me (ilostwaldo, gmail) with any questions or corrections.

Social mobility and inequality


Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite by Shamus Khan (introduction)

A moving first-person account of upward social mobility. Highlights a trend (that I can personally relate to) where immigrant parents are okay with their own lack of social/cultural capital because they imagine their kids will, in some way, make up for that. Mentions the skewed nature of admittants to elite schools (Harvard’s definition of “middle income” is $110k-$200k which is really the top 5% …). Also briefly touches on the recent trend toward cultural omnivorism, where part of being privileged means being comfortable in any cultural environment.

Great quote:

They may claim otherwise, but colleges are truly “need blind” in the worst possible way. They are ambivalent to the disadvantages of poverty.

He also talks about meritocracy discourse and how there’s been a trend toward greater awareness of inequality & attempts to alleviate it. He isn’t nearly as critical as I would be here—I would treat it as a less of a demonstration of kindness and more of a defense mechanism on the part of the elite class, allowing a small amount of upward mobility from the lower classes in exchange for their consent—and seems to treat any negative consequences of meritocracy as due to drift (because the abilities being measured aren’t the right abilities) instead of as immanent. Piketty’s comments on meritocracy (from an interview with Mike Savage, coincidentally) are relevant here (referencing the founder of Sciences Po):

[…] now that we have universal suffrage, there’s a risk that basically the poor and the majority of the population will try to expropriate us, the elite. We have to display merits and our own standings so that it will be a completely crazy idea to get rid of us. So in a way it’s as if […] modern meritocracy discourse is invented as a way to protect the elite from democracy basically, from the universal suffrage.

Frédéric Lordon says something similar in Willing Slaves of Capital:

[…] With the eras of aristocratic and plutocratic legitimacy gone (at least in their pure forms), the contemporary mythogenesis of the university degree, as Bourdieu repeatedly insisted, struggles to hide its own indifference to content and its only true mission, which is to certify ‘elites’, namely, to provide alibis to the distribution of individuals within the social division of desire.

Immanuel Wallerstein also has an excellent take on this, in Historical Capitalism:

[…] The institutionalized meritocratic system helps a few to gain access to positions they merit and from which they might otherwise be barred. But it allows many more to gain access to positions on the basis of ascribed status under the cover of having gained this access by achievement.

Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage (chapter 6)

I just read the whole book since I happened to have it already. My notes are all in Bookmarker.

There’s a quote from John Hills’ Good Times, Bad Times which is fairly relevant to the discussion of social mobility in chapter 6:

[…] If policy helps increase the chances of someone starting in a less privileged position to go up the social scale, that must mean that someone else’s chance of going down has to rise, which may include their own children, and does not then seem so attractive. While many favour increased upward mobility, few want to mention the increased downward mobility that has to go with it (in terms of relative positions, at least).

The Price of the Ticket (PDF) by Sam Friedman

On the downsides of upward social mobility. Challenges Goldthorphe’s landmark work on this field (which drew on surveys and concluded that upward mobility was a Good Thing) by focusing on the downsides of it (mostly int terms of the negative psychological effects on the subjects). Cites Bourdieu and Durkheim, among others. This paper raised some good points about why we shouldn’t uncritically support the idea of social mobility, but I kept waiting for the obvious conclusion—that we should destroy class hierarchies altogether—that never came …


This lecture was given by Mike Savage, Professor of Sociology at LSE.


This was a pretty unstructured one where we mostly talked about our own personal experiences with social mobility. Some takeaways: